Sunday, December 11, 2011

Here I Am: a story inspired by a Grace Paley poem

I was just pulling myself out of bed when Garrison Keillor’s voice floated by. “And now a poem by Grace Paley,” he crooned, in that overly familiar tone of his. But still, I sank back into the mattress, my ears stretching closer to the radio, and the man I sometimes call “Mr. Smarmy” (though, to be fair, who else reads us poetry in the  morning ) began to recite the poem “Here.” Of course I’d rather have heard it in Grace’s voice, the opening words, “Here I am,” spoken around a white sugared square of Chicklet, or a smooth mentholated cough drop. She doesn’t stand on ceremony, I’ve been told.
“Here I am in the garden laughing...” the poem begins, and then goes on, how she sits there with her “heavy breasts” and her “nicely mapped face,” with her “stout thighs,” and her little grandson sliding on/off her lap. Not “on and off” but “on/off” — and I see that squirming boy in my sleep-fogged brain, wriggling all over his grandmother. 
She tells us more, this aging woman, this poet gardener, about her husband, over there, on the other side of the yard, talking with the meter reader, explaining how it’s not a good thing, our dependency on oil, talking and teaching, while the poet watches, listens, patient and bemused. 
She says to her grandson, “Run over to the fence and get Grandpa, tell him I’m too tired to come myself, tell him I’m tired but still I long to kiss his sweet explaining lips.” Not in those exact words, but something very similar. 
And then it’s over, there is no more poem, and while the words are still lingering in my ears I begin to cry. I lie against my warm pillow and let the tears come, not so much for the last words as for the first: “Here I am.” It is a perfect opening, isn’t it? Three words that are themselves a prayer, an invocation. “Here I am” she says, “Here I am — in the garden — laughing.” 
She is so clear in my mind, in her loose, generous skirt. I imagine her not-quite-clean feet pushed into worn-down sandals. A white cotton peasant blouse, or some other nice blouse, definitely not a T-shirt. This is before her grandson comes to join her, before her husband sees the meter reader and calls out “Wait, I have something to tell you.” This is earlier in the morning, while there is still some trace of a breeze, while the dew dampens the tomato vine, and she is up to her wrists in dirt, the dirt working its way under her fingernails. 
A smudge settles on the bridge of her nose where she rubs her finger against her slipping-down glasses, the same finger that has pressed down on so many pens and pencils over the years, the finger that hits the “H” key on the keyboard. (Years ago, she might have used a Smith Corona Selectric. Today, the “H” of her iMac, the “H” of “Here I am.”) 
She is in the garden, making things right, and later, when her son calls on the phone to ask after the boy, perhaps she’ll tell him “I was out puttering today, I was laughing, it was good.”
And I’m crying because I know that even if some day I grow up to be a woman who can say “I’m happy with my heavy breasts and my stout thighs and my nicely mapped face,” I will never be able to begin a poem “Here I am,  in the garden,  laughing.” I see no gardens in my future. I can picture Grace, patting a seed into place, pulling up handfuls of weeds. But not me.
My poem would start like this: “Here I am, in the window, watching.” That is where I place myself, an old woman framed by a rectangle of dark wood.
Like my great-grandmother, Ethel. Every day, all day, she sat at her window, pillows propped behind and under her. Her thin, tired old face breaking into a smile as my mother and grandmother approach, waving, calling out “hello, hello” while lifting me from my carriage. 
“Make a kiss for Great-Grandma,” they coo at me. And I make a kiss, the first actual bit of body coordination I learn. A slight puckering of my lips, fingers lifted to mouth, then pulled away in a reckless arc. And that sound, like the ocean separating from sand, “mmmmmwhaaaaaa,” so that every one laughs, even the shrunken old woman in the window. A silent laugh, her yawning, toothless mouth cavernous as any baby’s.
That’s what I picture for myself: “Here I am, in the window, watching.” Watching it all pass by— cars, bicycles, skateboards, young mothers pushing baby carriages, young fathers hoisting their infants onto their hips, carrying them around like big fat footballs. Teenagers, in packs, laughing and cursing, exhaling smoke. The boys trying to keep their pants from slipping down their narrow hips, acting like they don’t care, either way. The girls, skinny or plump, a bit on edge, nervous, just that much louder than they really want to be, putting on a brave front. And all the while there I am, invisible, in my window. 
My great-grandmother was not invisible. The whole neighborhood saw her — strangers and friends alike — they’d wave and call “good morning,”  “good evening.” An Italian neighbor had a special greeting; one day she told my mother it meant “old grandmother, who sits all day in the window.” There isn’t a pretty phrase for that these days. More likely I’d be called “snoop,” “busy body,” “bitch.” So I’ll hang back, won’t lean over the ledge, won’t catch the sun’s rays on my upturned wrinkled face.
But still, I can see myself there, in the shadows, giving a silent “right on” to the loud-mouthed girls, blowing kisses to their big-eyed babies from behind the half-opened shades, sinking back into the embracing darkness. 
I’m waiting for that day. I’ll be older, grayer, sagging in even more places. And if I’m lucky I’ll be able to begin my poem: “Here I am, in the window . . .  laughing.”